A handbook of tactics: Some historical context for studying “Left-wing” communism

Aug 22, 2018

Photo design: Megan Lemons

It would be virtually impossible to over-state the impact of the Russian Revolution which began in February 1917. At the beginning of that year, the world was in a very dismal state.

World War I, the first imperialist world war, had been raging in Europe for two and a half years since August 1914. Millions were dead and there was no end in sight. On single days, tens of thousands would be killed and maimed in battles where massed troops rose up out of the trenches, died under machine gun fire or from poison gas, or from disease.

It was a war of empires, on the one side the British, French, Russian, Japanese, Italian empires, on the other, the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. The only major power in the war that didn’t formally call itself an empire was the United States, which was of course an empire as well.

Most of the socialist (or social-democratic) parties which had grown very large and influential in the pre-war period in some countries, especially Germany, betrayed the working class and supported their respective capitalist classes in the war. The leaders like Karl Kautsky in Germany had said before the war that when it came they would resist and tell the workers not to kill and die for the profits of their respective ruling classes. But under the pressures of war hysteria when the conflict began, most capitulated and supported their governments in the war.

Outside of Europe, nearly all of Asia, Africa and Latin America were outright colonies or semi-colonies. The world had been carved up by the big powers and now they were fighting the most terrible and destructive war in history to re-divide it.

It was a truly dismal world in January 1917. Even Lenin, living in exile in Switzerland that same month told a group of Swiss socialist youth that his generation would not live to see the revolution but their generation would.

Then, just a few weeks later, like a lightning bolt out of a blue sky, came the Russian Revolution, first the February bourgeois (capitalist) revolution that in five short days brought an end to the monarchy which had ruled the Russian Empire for two and a-half centuries. And then in October the socialist revolution, the seizure of power by the working class led by Lenin and the Bolshevik Party.

As we have written about in our book “Storming the Gates”, the Russian Revolution had an electrifying effect on the world. It led to the formation of new revolutionary workers parties – communist parties all over the world and the Communist International. In Europe and the Americas the social-democratic parties split. In the U.S and elsewhere, the left-wing of the old socialist party united with elements from the Industrial Workers of the World and others to form the Communist Party of America. There was great, great excitement, especially among young people, and a great desire to repeat what had happened in Russia.

Many of these new revolutionary parties had at the beginning an ultra-leftist view, thus Lenin’s title of the pamphlet we are going to study. What does that mean?

In looking at the Russian Revolution, the “Left-Wing” revolutionaries hailed the Bolsheviks and focused on the seizure of power, but did not understand what had come before the revolution. Lenin said to them: It would be better to praise us less and study our history more, and all the phases our party went through before the revolution.

Ultra-leftism, or what Lenin calls “Left-Wing” Communism (note the quotation marks around “Left-Wing”) can be defined as substituting one’s wishes for reality. Ultra-leftism is also always sectarian. While firm in their principles, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were anti-sectarian, and over the years had worked together with many other forces.

The ultra-leftists proclaimed that it was unnecessary — in fact that it was reactionary – to participate in bourgeois elections, or in labor unions led by social-democratic or pro-capitalist leaders. That said “no compromises” with non-revolutionary forces. In other words, that declared in essence their desire to go straight to revolution.

That would be great, if it were possible. But as Lenin explained, there cannot be a revolution without a revolutionary crisis in society. And no one has the power to create such a crisis, or, on the other hand, to prevent one from happening. A revolutionary crisis grows out of contradictions in society which neither the oppressors or the oppressed control. Most often, revolutionary crises have developed out of wars.

We are not studying Left-Wing” Communism because we are living in a revolutionary time like 1917-21. We are not living in such a time. We are living in a generally reactionary period, just as the Bolsheviks did through most of their existence until the 1917 revolution.

As we can see, this pamphlet is in many ways a handbook of the tactics of a revolutionary party in a non-revolutionary time. Lenin explains that the Bolsheviks could not have succeeded in leading the revolution without having passed through nearly 20 years of upsurge and retreat before 1917. That it was essential that they worked inside reactionary-led unions to win over workers, to run in the bourgeois elections as corrupt and weak the Duma (parliament) was in order to be a voice for the working class and all the oppressed.

He ridicules the notion of “no compromises” showing that the Bolsheviks had entered into countless short-term alliances and coalitions to advance the cause of the workers, and also broken alliances when necessary. He discusses the difference between principled and unprincipled compromises.

The richness of the Bolshevik’s experience, their tactical sophistication gained through so many experiences, together with their consistent devotion to the real interests of the working class, are factors which made it possible for them to lead the socialist revolution.

The PSL as a whole is engaging in the study of “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder as a means to deepen our understanding of Leninist tactics in the struggle to build the revolutionary party in the heartland of imperialism.